Ear and Temporal Bone Cancer

The temporal bone is an area of the skull above the ear. Approximately 200 cases of ear and temporal bone cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States.


Tumors often start as scaly areas or white bumps on the outside of the ear. The area might ooze or drain. A tumor also might start inside the ear canal. The patient might notice drainage from the canal or pain inside the ear.

An ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist must examine any ear infection that does not go away.

Basal skin carcinoma is the most common type of ear and temporal bone cancer. A scaly area of skin on the ear, which does not improve with the application of moisturizer, is usually the first sign. Then, a pearly white bump appears which grows slowly. The lump can be painless or an ulcer might develop in the center of the lump. The ulcer later bleeds and becomes painful. These tumors can spread to the inside of the ear but rarely other parts of the body.

Squamous cell cancer grows deeper into the body and is more likely to spread. If the tumor grows into the temporal bone it can cause hearing loss, dizziness, and facial paralysis.

Causes and Risk Factors for Ear Cancer

The skin on the ear (pinna) is exposed to the sun. After years of exposure, basal cell skin cancer or squamous cell cancer can develop. Temporal bone tumors are usually caused by a tumor that begins on the skin near the ear and later spreads to the bone. Fair skinned people are more susceptible to skin cancer and, therefore, have a greater risk of developing temporal bone cancer.

These tumors can also be caused when cancer spreads from another part of the body to the temporal bone (metastasis).

Chronic skin infections of the ear canal increase the risk.


A doctor should examine any small lesion (bump or scaly area) on the ear. If the area does not resolve, or it grows larger, a biopsy is needed to determine if the lesion is cancerous.

An ENT specialist must examine any chronic ear infection that an antibiotic does not cure.


The lesion needs to be removed if the biopsy indicates cancer. The type of surgery depends on the size of the tumor. The diagnosis should to be made when the cancer is early and treatment should be started immediately to prevent the tumor from spreading.